NEW BEDFORD — It’s up to voters whether or not South Coast Rail service will start next year.

Progress on the project has been stop-and-go for decades. Now, with construction on the first phase chugging toward completion, a ballot question will ask residents of New Bedford and Fall River if it should proceed.

The commuter rail connection to Boston is on track to start service in late 2023. But for any community that wants to join the MBTA, the ticket to ride is a majority vote by residents, according to state law.

The project has faced repeated delays since it was first proposed in the late 1980s. Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld said in 1991, “If you don’t have commuter rail by 1997, you can sue me.” But between picking the route, mitigating environmental impacts, and grappling with increasing costs, the state had to push back construction again and again.

The state didn’t settle on a final plan until 2017, when it decided to split construction into two phases. In the first phase, Fall River and New Bedford will be connected to Boston via the Middleborough/Lakeville line starting next year. Later, an electrified route will bring riders through Stoughton, but that route won’t be ready until the 2030s.

The MBTA estimates that about 740 riders will board the train in New Bedford each day once it’s up and running. There will be two stops in the city — one at Church Street and another near the Whale’s Tooth parking lot. The agency is still working out the train schedule.

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While some residents have expressed concern about the cost, city and MBTA officials say New Bedford won’t have to pay anything.

MBTA communities are legally required to contribute funding to the agency based on a formula that factors in population and ridership. But communities that already put money toward a local transit agency can have that contribution deducted from the sum they would have to pay to the MBTA.

New Bedford paid $1,304,651 to the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority in the last fiscal year. That deduction is more than the $699,347 that the city would have had to pay the MBTA that year based on the funding formula, according to New Bedford Chief Financial Officer Michael Gagne. So the city’s MBTA bill comes out to $0.

“Given the sizable difference in the two figures, as well as the City’s likely modest population growth over the long-term, the City does not anticipate paying any MBTA assessment until well into the future, if ever,” Gagne said in a statement.

Advocates of South Coast Rail say it’s too late to hit the brakes now. Construction is well underway and over $585 million has already been spent on the first phase. But not everyone is on board.

Nelson Vasquez, a Fall River resident, doubts that the train could really cost nothing. He also points to news reports that the MBTA is about to face a major funding gap — Vasquez is afraid that those costs will eventually fall on South Coast cities if they vote to join. Another concern for him is the zoning requirements that come with being an MBTA community.

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“If you vote yes for this, you’re giving away autonomy,” Vasquez said. “This zoning law that our state legislators passed, this takes away local control.”

A state law passed last year requires MBTA communities to set up zoning districts that allow for multi-family housing “as of right” with limited restrictions. At most, communities can only require 20% of the units to be affordable. 

Housing advocates have warned that the expectation of commuter rail service has already increased South Coast rents. The rail connection won’t make the commute to Boston any faster, but the convenience of a train ride could make New Bedford a more appealing place to live for someone who only has to be in the office once or twice a week, the advocates say. That drives demand for housing here, which pushes prices up.

“The ones who are for this are gonna live to regret it, because this is gonna price them out of New Bedford or Fall River,” Vasquez said.

The MBTA declined to make the project’s manager available for an interview. But State Rep. Bill Straus, who chairs the Transportation Committee and represents part of New Bedford’s North End, says he hopes voters don’t choose to derail the project this November.

“I do urge people who are voters in New Bedford to vote ‘yes,’” he said.

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Straus echoed the MBTA in saying that the train won’t cost anything extra to the South Coast communities. And he said that the Legislature is working on ways to address the agency’s financial troubles with corporate taxes and fees for Uber and Lyft rides.

“I’m hopeful that some of these other transportation funding mechanisms, which wouldn’t fall on the host communities, can be pursued,” he said.

December 2023 is the target launch date for South Coast Rail, but test trains could be running as soon as next summer. But only if voters give the final go-ahead on a project more than three decades in the making.

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